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Prague: A People, A City, A History

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Prague is a city close to my heart. I spent a few memorable months in a town closer to the Slovak border as a teenager teaching English. It was a bitterly cold winter of 1993, only months after the fall of communism and it was just as Czechoslovakia had become a new Czech Republic. It was a unique and life changing moment in history, both for a young girl from Britain and for the Czech and Slovak Republics. The red tape and bureaucracy involved in entering the country to work in a school was immense. I had to sign a form which was also required to be signed by the headmaster, the state police and central government, then photocopied eight times.

The experience was life changing and the memories of a people, as yet untouched by western culture, was an eye opener. Lives were lived simply and with family gatherings a frequent occurrence. The emphasis on Czech culture and folk music, and stories handed down through generations, on lives determined by fierce winters and the need for thick boots, coats and hats (none of which I owned), created a seed in me; a seed that would later grow to become a story.

As I listened to the lives of people who had lived under daily threat of the communist state police, and with the risk of imprisonment, a world opened itself up to me. This was a world where post was intercepted, movement restricted, media heavily censored and ordinary lives monitored secretly, and scrutinized by a power that eventually collapsed in 1989 after the Velvet Revolution and the fall of the Berlin wall. The chain of events across Eastern Europe was cataclysmic. I was amazed to hear different sides to a story that remains a powerful historical period. Girls my age missed the security of one hundred percent employment under a communist government and the comfort of rules and regulations, but as I listened I heard stories of those who were less fortunate and whose families were torn apart by deceit as people were forced to turn on their own friends and family, and parents were imprisoned for being deemed traitors, enemies of the state.

That a land so beautiful and so rich in culture and stunning in its elegance had endured such a savage and restrictive past, was a message to me that over the years grew into a story, and subsequently a book. Take Me to the Castle became my debut novel, published in 2012, and it went on to win The Peoples’ Book Awards in 2013. It was a story that had to be written, a story that developed out of listening to first hand experiences and of staying in Letovice during a unique turning point in history at a time when I heard not a single English voice and felt the chill of the snow as it reached Charles Bridge and the Vltava River, as it covered the musicians and artists, the castle and the cathedral. The silence betrayed a deeper history of Jewish graveyards and of former prisons and government offices filled with files on ordinary people.

I fell in love with Prague and I have been back since to a much changed city, but my memories of 1993 remain and will stay with me.

Photo credits clockwise from top left:

1. Word-visits.blogspot.co.at, Trips to Prague

2. Free-picture.net, Cities of the World

3. Wikimedia, Daniel Wabyick, Prague – sculpture (about the deteriorating effects of communism on man)

4. Prague-guide.co.uk, Velvet Revolution Memorial

5. Panic on the Streets of Prague, Prague-life.com

6. teflworldwidepraguereviews.wordpress.com, Prague Streets

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Library Finds and Old Books

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My Father arrived on a flight from the UK last week armed with a selection of books which were being sold from a library. Among them were The First English Dictionary 1604 by Robert Cawdrey, Plain Words: A Guide to the Use of English by Ernest Gowers (1948), and The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester. For those of you who appreciate the smell of old books, they oozed the vanilla scent that is produced by aging paper as the lignin breaks down. You can read about the Science of it here . The content was of particular interest to me as a writer. I love words: their origins, use and translations and I used to collect dictionaries and the odd thesaurus, along with books of literary quotes.

Amongst the books my Father brought with him were a few on different parts of the world and a History of England which was originally presented to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, in 1974. The inscription made the book all the more unique in the age of eBooks and I was reminded of the wonder of old books. We used to have a second hand bookshop at the end of our road when I was a child with the most unusual books and the same wonderful musty vanilla smell invading your senses as you opened the door. I love eBooks for the ease and speed of getting into a new book, especially as I live in a country where English is not the primary language and where the English books take up a small shelf space in the upper corners of a few bookshops. But I will never tire of the scent of old paper, of interesting inscriptions placed in the front of second hand books, of the notes scribbled in the margins and of wondering who the owner might have been, or whether there is a whole story behind a string of owners. Neither will I tire of the physical turning of the pages and the feeling of holding a book in my hands as I curl up with a coffee and a few hours of peace.


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Flat- Pack Stories (not quite the Booker prize)

Ruth F Hunt

When I get a piece of flat-pack furniture home, I always reach for the instructions. My friend on the other hand dives in, and as a result, many of her creations don’t look like they should do.

I suppose I take the same approach with writing. I wouldn’t dream of writing a novel without reading widely and daily.

Now that I want to write more short stories I’ve been on a mission to read as many as I can. It’s not that I’ve avoided reading them, I have, it’s just I read more novels than shorts.

To mark progress on this quest, I’ve decided to produce my own Flat-Pack Stories/not quite the Booker prize long list of short stories that I’ve enjoyed the most, so far.

I think I share Nicholas Royle’s view of Flash Fiction. I’m always left wanting more. However, on my long list are some flash fiction…

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Asunder by Chloe Aridjis: A Review

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I was recommended this book by a friend and am so grateful to have read it. The rich language and the palpable tension in the narrative kept me turning the pages in one sitting until I reluctantly reached the end. It is a book I will go back to and reread at some stage. The similarity with what I am currently writing was also striking, so the read was timely.

“They call us guards, warders, invigilators, room keepers, gallery assistants. We are watchmen, sentinels, but we don’t polish guns, shoes or egos. We are custodians of a national treasure, a treasure beyond value stored behind eight Corinthian columns of a neoclassical façade, the dreams of the ancients stuccoed to our building.”

Marie’s job as a museum guard at the National Gallery in London offers her the life she always wanted, one of invisibility and quiet contemplation. But amid the hushed corridors of the Gallery surge currents of history and violence, paintings whose power belie their own fragility. There also lingers the legacy of her great-grandfather Ted, the warder who slipped and fell moments before reaching the suffragette Mary Richardson as she took a blade to one of the gallery’s masterpieces on the eve of the First World War.

After nine years there, Marie begins to feel the tug of restlessness. A decisive change comes in the form of a winter trip to Paris, where, with the arrival of an uninvited guest and an unexpected encounter, her carefully contained world is torn apart.

The book has a depth to it that pulled me in immediately. There is a magical darkness to her prose and the author’s descriptions and sharp eye for detail were compelling. It is powerfully and creatively written through the eyes of Marie, the museum guard. Her world and her insights into the people and places around her give you a sense of claustrophobia and of the parallels between the fragility of life and of the valuable paintings in the gallery. I have a particular interest in art and have spent many happy hours in various galleries around the world, so her research into the technical aspects of the topic were interesting.

A passage I really enjoyed describes the character’s feelings as she lies in a bed in Paris in the home of a couple who have recently separated and left the flat empty. There is a sense of the reader intruding on the intimacy of the the lives of the unknown couple:

“Yet almost immediately this darkness began to curdle into something viscous and heavy. As I lay in bed I began to speculate about the couple who’d slept in my spot for who knows how many years. I tried to imagine their faces, their bodies, their voices, whether they slept on their sides, stomachs or backs, whether intertwined or at separate ends of the bed, about whatever moments, fraught or transcendent, they’d lived out where I lay, what conversations, what passion or frustration. I began to worry I might inherit their dreams, that I’d find myself in ragged environments populated by ragged figures without knowing how to fend them off.”

There is something very abstract about Aridjis’ writing. She creates a world that is both surreal, yet very real. There is something of Nabakov in her style and she hones in on the idea of destruction and decay brilliantly, without overwriting.

This is an absolute must-read for anyone who enjoys literary fiction and the world of art. There is a strong psychological element to the story which gives it wide appeal. This book almost flew below the radar and I am so glad not to have missed it.